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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900)[52:51]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
- Prelude to Act I [14:20]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Ruy Blas
Overture Op.85 [7:08]
Jane Alexander (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra (Mendelssohn)/Rudolf Kempe
rec. 12 & 14 May 1957, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London; 12 February 1967 (Mendelssohn), Royal Festival Hall, London. Mono ADD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5117 [74:38]

As an ardent Kempe fan, I had been hoping that these previously unpublished recordings would be in stereo. Their sound in fact constitutes the single biggest drawback to this ICA issue: it is muddy and opaque with a continuous tinny overlay such as one hears on 78s. I would have hoped for better. The 1967 recording of the Mendelssohn overture is of marginally superior quality but there is nothing here for the audiophile and I suspect that only Kempe devotees and completists will want this. Unfortunately, the hiss is even more pronounced on headphones.
The performances themselves, made in front of a generally very quiet studio audience and at the Royal Festival Hall, are typical of Kempe’s direct, unfussy interpretative approach. The Mahler symphony is the briskest I know but the conductor understands how sustained momentum in Mahler cannot be bought at the expense of lilt and charm. He remains mindful of Mahler’s instruction, “Nicht eilen”. This is Mahler which remains humorous; it sings, swings and chuckles in the Scherzo-like second movement, yet the Adagio is wonderfully serene. The phrasing in the upper strings is celestial and their intonation is excellent. Indeed, the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays exceptionally well, especially considering that in this era Mahler symphonies were hardly yet part of their regular repertoire. Less satisfactory is the Finale, which sounds as rushed as the timing suggests; soprano Jane Alexander is an adequate but unmemorable soloist.
The fillers are beautifully played: Kempe had a great affinity with Wagner’s music, but the hiss and shallowness of the recorded sound do his interpretation no favours. He gives an energised account of Ruy Blas.
For all its incidental virtues, I cannot say that these performances are indispensable, even though they are new to the Kempe discography and the sound represents an additional disincentive.  

Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Mahler 4